I Can’t Stop Obsessing Over These Two Manual Ford SUVs: Which Is The Better Buy?

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I can’t explain it, but there are some cars that just make me get a bit weird. Manual Ford Aerostars and Chevy Astros will do it, manual Saturn Vues will do it, manual Ford Fusions will even do it. There’s just something great about a manual version of a car that you wouldn’t expect to have a stick — especially if that manual makes the car extremely reliable over the automatic. That’s why I cant stop drooling over this 1993 Ford Explorer and 2008 Mazda Tribute (basically a Ford Escape). So let’s decide which of these is the better buy.

Typically “Shitbox Showdown” runs from Monday through Friday, and is penned by our talented contributor Mark Tucker. But I felt compelled to write a bonus Shitbox Showdown as a way to thank you for helping our site reach 1 Million pageviews this month, and also because I can’t stop staring at these two manual Ford SUVs and sharing them with Jason Torchinsky. Jason shares my appreciation for these two vehicles, but I can only send him these two links so many times before even he tires of agreeing with me that these are cool. (Actually, in truth, I don’t think he ever tires of it; but I worry that he might after the 1000th time I show him these links, so let me cut him a break and start bothering you). We’ll start with the Tribute.

2008 Mazda Tribute: $6,500

I know, I know. Some of you are thinking: “Hey, this is supposed to be Shitbox Showdown, and you’re showing us a $6,500 car?” And that’s fair; this thing ain’t cheap, and it’s really not a shitbox, per se. But it’s cool, though maybe in the same way that music aficionados like bad music and cheese connoisseurs enjoy dairy that smells like feet.

But whatever. So what if I’m in so deep that I’m now drooling over mundane crossovers? I’m not ashamed. Look at this thing! You can’t tell me that the second-gen Mazda Tribute’s styling hasn’t aged well. It’s upright, has tough fender flares, the face looks confident, and overall the design is just clean.

But here’s the thing: It’s not just the crisp exterior styling that has me so interested in this Tribute — it’s the interior. Not only is it equipped with a stickshift and clutch pedal, but it’s absolutely beautiful for a cheap 14 year-old crossover cabin. Check it out:

Am I wrong on this? Why do I find this 14 year-old Ford Escape cabin to look absolutely lovely. The tan and black is just so perfectly blended, the four-spoke steering wheel looks great, and the liberal use of tan on pretty much all door trim and on the headliner — it just makes the interior feel airy and pleasant.

But it’s not just the elegant interior and exterior styling that has me feeling some type of way about this Tribute, it’s the hardware underneath it all. The engine is Mazda’s 2.3-liter “MZR” engine, called the Duratec 23 in Ford applications. It is a legitimately good engine that tends to last forever, and it’s hooked to a Ford G5M-R five-speed manual which should last well beyond 200,000 miles if taken good care of (though its internal slave cylinder has me concerned, as to fix it would require one to remove the transmission; external slave cylinder designs don’t have that problem).

I guess what makes this car so appealing is that it’s a modern car with decent crash test scores, it scores 28 MPG highway, its interior looks fantastic, the exterior looks like a nice blend of elegancy and toughness, and with only 95,000 miles on the clock, I bet that Mazda MZR motor and G5M-R transmission will last until the end of time.

This seems like a stout, modern, comfortable, somewhat efficient little manual transmission machine that’s in incredible shape.

1993 Ford Explorer: $3,800

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The other manual FoMoCo SUV I’ve been drooling for is a 188,000 mile 1993 first-generation Ford Explorer. It’s a body-on-frame, squared-off, old-school machine that really doesn’t get the love it deserves from car enthusiasts. Though I guess I understand why; the vehicle is a bit watered down. It’s not as purposeful as its Jeep Cherokee competitor; the geometry and the independent front suspension setup pretty much preclude the car from being a real off-road beast straight out of the dealership; it guzzles gas; it looks like many other Fords of the era (and shares many mechanical attributes)’ and it never really became a cult classic despite being featured in films like Jurassic Park (where it wasn’t really the star). It’s just a 1990s-era Ford SUV.

But I dig it.

The squared-off styling just works, and overall, I think this body-on-frame, 4×4 machine would make a pretty good camping rig. The 4.0-liter V6 underhood is basically unkillable from what I’ve been told, and though the Mazda M5OD five-speed isn’t exactly known for being the most robust manual transmission, if used mostly on the street and not in hard-core off-road environments it should hold up just fine.

The dash is a bit boring, but the Explorer’s seats are just fantastic with those striped shades of gray.

The two-tone exterior paint is lovely, and between it, the fun seats, the car’s squared-off shape, the reliable V6 engine, the 4×4 capability, and the five-speed manual, there’s just a lot of ’90s Americana to love, here.

The question is: Does the lower-mileage, more expensive front-wheel drive 2008 Mazda Tribute offer even more to love? It’s newer, safer, has a nicer and brighter interior, has a similarly stout engine and drivetrain, can go farther on a gallon of gas, and is safer. But it’s also a two-wheel drive crossover that looks like an Escape. Hmm.

Let’s have a poll:

 

 

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73 Responses

  1. I had a 93 Eddie Bauer Explorer and it was fantastic. If it had been a manual I’d have probably kept it. With the Eddie Bauer seats it was probably the best road trip vehicle I’ve owned. It would do fine driving around in the mountains on two track roads that could get sketchy, but I never really pushed it off pavement. It would be a perfect camping rig.

  2. Explorer all day and twice on Sunday. So, Explorer twice then.

    I’d love a manual 4 door 4wd Explorer, first gen or early 2nd would be fine. I’ve driven them and they’re a lot better as a daily than an XJ. They ride nicer, interior is roomier and not as awkward to get in/out of, and I always considered them to drive nicer, in spite of being true BOF. The Grand Cherokee was clearly aimed at Explorer, while the much earlier design of the XJ showed when compared.

    I have been off road in both (moderate trails with deep ruts, etc, nothing extreme), advantage: Jeep… but not by a huge margin for that type of driving. Hard-core off-roaders will undoubtedly prefer the Jeep. And they can enjoy is myriad of electrical problems and multiple fluid leaks, seemingly from the factory as I recall.

    The Mazda Escape? I’d rather have a real SUV any day. I had a crossover (AWD/manual Element), not interested in another (especially a FWD only, even with 3 pedals).

  3. The Mazda will undoubtedly be the nicer one to drive, but the Explorer is the one that will probably last with the cockroaches. Clicking on the links, I noticed two key things. First, the Explorer is already sold, because a clean running driving vehicle of any sort that you could safely put kids in for $3800 is a screaming deal these days.

    Second, and more importantly, the Mazda is an Illinois car. That generation of Tribute/Escape loved to rust out under that body cladding. I’d be willing to bet that despite looking oh so clean, there isn’t much body structure left under that cladding. I realize that’s somehow a plus for your David, but for those of us who aren’t keen to drive a vehicle that will wad up like a beer can on a frat boy’s forehead in a wreck, I’ll pass.

  4. Man this one is tough. If it were my DD I would go Mazda. That lil guy is actually pretty handsome. I like the hood bulge and the bumpers/flares are painted (not turned all chalky grey if not painted).

    The explorer would be a good 2nd vehicle. Home Depot trips with a utility trailer. Take the dogs to the creek. Throw some AT tires on there and do some camping etc.

  5. Tribute all day. They’re incredibly rare in 5 speed form. They’re paired exclusively to the Mazda 2.5L that can be turboed into oblivion (their 2.5L blocks are also matted to the Mazdaspeed 3/6 MZR heads). There is literally nothing wrong with the 2nd gen, other than some rusty rear quarter panels, all of the issues are with the (Ford) V6 and early 4 speed transmissions.

  6. The first thing that I noticed about the Tribute is the centre stack is just black plastic, no fake carbon fibre, fake brushed metal or glossy piano black. Nice.

    I have a friend who had a small fleet of this generation Escapes for his business. He even drove one himself. He took pretty good care of things and he claimed they were all unkillable and affordable to keep up with required maintenance. He did however, lose them all to copious rust. They just rotted out extremely fast. For this reason, I think it is the best choice for David. He will feel right at home in one.

  7. I volunteer as Tribute! (I can’t believe I haven’t seen this reference in the comments yet)

    The Explorer checks all the boxes for me. Honestly, I only have two for this gen Explorer/Ranger and those are 4.0 and manual. But the Tribute looks like something that you can daily right now and for many years in the future – to me it is clearly the better buy if it is going to see regular use.

  8. Lady at work had one of the Explorers with MT. Rode with her once. Every shift was at redline and everytime she hit the brakes I was hanging on the belts trying to stay out of the dash.

    Mazda it is.

  9. Having owned a ’91 Mazda Navajo for a couple of years, I am undeniably your best resource for a recommendation here (and yes, I am looking deep into the chasm of the Sar).

    What do you want it for? A pavement-only runabout that will spoil you with it’s fresh*, updated* interior ? Would you drive it once the salt comes out?

    (* by DT standards)

    Let’s face it. The Explorer is close to your style. With it’s apparent lack of rust, you’d still probably park it in winter. But while not a rock crawler, the Explorer can go farther off road than a FWD CUV. I’m too lazy to look up tow ratings, but I’m guessing the Ford’s would be at least twice the Tribute’s. Since you work at home, how much driving do you really do? at an almost $3K price difference, how long would it take you to break even?

  10. I’d buy the Mazda. My 2009 Escape wasn’t the nicest or most reliable vehicle I’ve ever owned, but it was practical and thrifty compared to a BOF vehicle. The 1st gen Explorer was a sloppily engineered and dangerous piece of shit. The contemporary Cherokee wasn’t great on pavement either, but at least it could kick ass off road.

  11. Rather have the mazda. That generation of Tribute/Escape is very reliable in my opinion. yet that is the nicest Exploder (Explorer, sorry, I’m a mechanic and worked on the neglected ones ) I’ve seen in years!

  12. I like the Mazda, but that Explorer is the better bet, with the 4WD and the lower price. And the main problem with that generation of Explorer was the transmission on the automatic, which makes this one seem pretty bulletproof.

  13. That Explorer doesn’t have Firestone tires, does it? 😛

    I’d take the Escape/Tribute because a manual SUV THAT new is definitely rare and fun and kinda cool and unique.

    The Escape/Tribute is the reason Mazda didn’t offer a 4-cylinder engine on the Mazda6 wagon in the US–fear that it would steal sales from the Escape/Tribute, so the 6 wagon was V6-only in the US 🙁

    The I4 comes from Mazda. The V6 comes from Ford

  14. I wouldn’t actually buy either, but I like the Mazda better.

    I know they worked together, but can anyone explain why the Mazda has a Ford transmission and the Ford has a Mazda transmission?

  15. the only in person experience with that Ford/Mazda were two of my coworkers, one had the Mazda, the other had the Ford, and they both hated them and had all kinds of problems with them both the entire time they had them.

    so even as clean as it looks, I could ever choose it here.

  16. The Mazda by far – much newer and nicer to ride in, in better shape, and probably quicker than the Explorer. However, I’d much rather take a similar era Mazda5 – pre-2011 had the same 2.3L MZR & 5-speed, while 2012 and later got the updated & beefier 2.5L MZR & 6-speed manual. Plus with the Mazda5 you get sliding doors, more interior volume, 6 seats and a lower CG. Plus, they’re cheaper than the Tribute listed above.

  17. Explorer all day.

    My sister bought a ’92 for $500 in 2002… I put a fan clutch and fuel pump in it and charged the A/C and never did anything else but oil changes for the next three years. It rode rough, it was noisy, it was borderline anemic in the power department, but it was roomy, reliable, and useful as hell.

    On the other hand, I worked on the Tribute/Escape for a living and came away with a healthy hatred of the things.

  18. Exploder. Yes it guzzles gas like your uncle guzzles crap beer at family gatherings. But it looks good from 20 feet, has early 90’s charm in spades, and can be fixed with a hammer. Throw a Springsteen mix through the stereo and enjoy rolling to the ice cream stand on weekends.

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